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How John Cale recorded the definitive version of ‘Hallelujah’

Jon Dekel

On Dec. 3, the week following his death, Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah” charted for the first time since its release, more than 30 years previous. It was, in fact, the seventh time the song had appeared on the Billboard Hot 100, beginning with Justin Timberlake’s 2010 take for a Haiti benefit show.

But for those who grew up in an era where "Hallelujah” became so ubiquitous that the New York Times called for a moratorium on its use in popular culture, hearing the original may have led to some confusion. Earnest, self-serious and drenched in reverb, Cohen’s synth-backed version lacks the vertiginous vocal acrobatics that became the song's signature, and includes several verses all but forgotten to history, and others that are considered standard but never appear on the original at all.

How could one of pop culture’s most enduring songs, the one most closely linked to Cohen’s legacy, largely ignore its own origin? The answer, as it turns out, has to do with a former member of the Velvet Underground, and a green ogre.

The popular thinking is that Jeff Buckley, the doomed, beautiful troubadour whose evocative version and early passing brought "Hallelujah” to the cultural fore, is responsible for its modern-day renaissance. But that’s only half true. The reality is that Buckley’s version is a cover of a cover. Or, to be more precise, a cover of a reinterpretation. The version of "Hallelujah" that most of western culture is familiar with — the one that caught Buckley’s attention and later turned a whole new generation on to its emotional gravitas — was conceived by the Welsh musician John Cale.

In 1990, Cale, then far removed from the Velvets and with a reputation as an esteemed producer, composer and performer in his own right, attended a concert by Cohen at the Beacon Theatre in New York on the recommendation of his friend, the author and Bob Dylan inner circle member Larry Sloman.

“Leonard was there performing with a full band,” Cale recalls. Cohen, at the time promoting his 1990 album I’m Your Man, was attempting to rework “Hallelujah” live, adding new verses and continuing his nearly decade-long pursuit to perfect the track, which was released on the little-known 1984 album Various Positions.

“I'd never heard the song before and it really caught my ear,” Cale continues. “I couldn't tell what the words were so I thought, that's something I've got to remember in my head because it's very simple. If the words are amazing then you've got a great, different approach to the song.”

A few months later, Cale got a call from the French magazine Les Inrock, asking him if he’d be open to appearing on a tribute album for Cohen punningly titled I’m Your Fan. “I remembered ‘Hallelujah,’" He says. "So I went back to Larry and said, 'Can you ask Leonard if I can have some lyrics for that song?' and I gave him my fax number. A day later I woke up and the floor was covered with 15 verses of the song. So I went through the verses and a lot of them were really special to Leonard. They spoke about religion. And they spoke about religion in a very personal way — in a way that wouldn't work with me. So I picked out the verses that I thought were cheeky or mischievous, and that's how I came to my version.”

Call it fate or call it karma, but somehow a copy of that tribute album ended up in a New York apartment where Buckley, at the time an unknown singer-guitarist, picked it up while cat-sitting for a friend and immediately fell in love with Cale’s interpretation. After refining his version, Buckley recorded an emotional take of Cale’s "Hallelujah" for his debut album, Grace, which gained extra resonance when the 30-year-old drowned in the Mississippi River.

Though the Buckley “Hallelujah” remains the one most instructive of the power and emotion of Cohen’s song, it was Cale’s stately interpretation that once again propelled the song to infamy four years later, when it appeared in a key scene in 2001’s wildly successful animated film Shrek (though, due to label loyalty issues, a new version by Rufus Wainwright was used on the film’s official soundtrack).

Shortly after Shrek’s success, Cale ran into Cohen at a Starbucks in Hollywood, where the two had consequently relocated. “I said, 'Well, I guess we did a good thing there,'” Cale recalls of the meeting. “I asked him, 'How many versions of 'Hallelujah' are there? How many can there be?' He said, ‘Well, it's all your fault, you know.’ And I said, 'Oh no, everybody's found something great in it because every verse has a different aspect of somebody's character.' I then told him I couldn't sing some of them because they were too religious for me, and he said, ‘Yeah, you take what you find useful.’"

Cale also recalls the conversation turning to deeper matters.

“It was funny because I wanted to talk to him about Zen [Buddhism] too, how he'd reconciled Judaism with Zen,“ he says. "I was brought up in this really restrictive Welsh background and if you were going to be a composer in Europe in the '60s you kind of had to prove the worth of a piece before you wrote it. It was post-World War II angst, post-Wagner composing for Hitler. That was a big scandal. So when I read [the writings of composer and Zen Buddhism accolade John] Cage, it suddenly took a weight off my shoulders. All of a sudden there was humour, there was a view of the universe that wasn't so contentious. Not so bent on 'You gotta prove this, you gotta prove that.' My relaxed view of the world came from reading Cage.”

Faced with Cale's inquiry, Cohen echoed the humour and wisdom he displays in the song's "cheekier" verses.

"He said the same thing," Cale says. "You just take from it what you find useful and move on.”

At 72, Cale has experienced his own fair share of darkness recently, with Cohen's death anchoring a recent string of passings that included close friends and collaborators Lou Reed and David Bowie.

Shortly before Cohen's passing, Cale released a new video for his version of “Hallelujah” as promotion for the December re-release of the 1992 live album, Fragments of a Rainy Season. Seated alone at the piano, Cale’s powerful vocal performance, reframed within the context of Shakespeare's Macbeth, improbably stacks another meaningful layer to the song’s myriad versions, which number in excess of 300.

“I don't like being linked to death,” he says. “It happens. People you may not have spoken to for years and it still has an impact on you. And you just have respect for what they did.”

Outside of his work as a viola player in the Velvet Underground, Cale's most prominent work is as a producer of seminal punk albums by Patti Smith, the Stooges and the Modern Lovers. These days, though, he says he’s more interested in the output of innovative hip-hop acts like Anderson .Paak and Domo Genesis, calling the recent "punk" stunt by Joseph Corré — the son of late Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and designer Vivienne Westwood — "a waste," he quips, “I guess he really hated his parents.”

As for “Hallelujah,” Cohen famously told Dylan it took him two years to write the tune. In reality, it was closer to five. Perhaps there’s some poetic justice then, that, nearly 40 years later, the original has finally earned a spot in the pop charts. Cohen’s death proving the final fix for his cold, broken masterpiece.

Explore more:

Q: K.D. Lang on Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah': 'He was a prophet'

Lyrics as Poetry: Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’

The many sides of Leonard Cohen: in his own words